“A good ruler must survey every edge of his kingdom biannually, and make sure to always take into account the words of his people…” King Cailan’s words drifted towards Cullen as if from far away, barely registering as his mind wandered to the next week’s shifts that he still needed to schedule. He took care to keep a carefully neutral, interested expression on his face, even as his charge, Prince Alistair, didn’t bother to do the same.
This would be the third time they were surveying the kelp forest in as many months. It created the easternmost border of their Kingdom and lied closest to the human shores, thus King Cailan always insisted that it be watched closely for signs of human expansion. Were any to be found, the King always stamped them out immediately, much to Alistair’s dismay. In truth Cullen thought it wise; after all, merfolk and humans were at the top of the food chain in their respective terrain. Were they to interact, Cullen had no doubt that it would lead to an all-out war, most likely with the humans as the victors. That was a future he definitely did not want to witness.
“Captain Cullen?” The sound of his name snapped his attention back to reality and he coughed, attempting to cover up his lack of attention. Alistair was glancing at him expectantly as Cailan droned on about the Kelp Forest.
Cullen cleared his throat quietly. “Yes, Your Grace?” He whispered back, arms clasped behind his back, chin high, the image of the perfect soldier.
Glancing back at his brother to make sure he wouldn’t overhear, Alistair said in hushed tones, “ Why is it important that we survey the kelp forest each month? I don’t understand. It hasn’t changed once since we started surveying it months ago. ” Cullen could practically hear the exasperated groan in the Prince’s voice and stifled a chuckle. While Alistair was his charge, he considered the younger man somewhat of a friend. After all, they spent most of their time together.
“Well, your brother believes – ” At that moment Cailan turned back to them in his long winded speech, and Cullen snapped back to attention as Alistair fought off a snort. Without missing a beat Cailan continued, facing the kelp forest once more. Cullen cleared his throat. “ – your brother believes that the Kelp Forest is slowly deteriorating, which could cause significant problems considering it is our main border with the human nations. He believes that, if this continues, war with the humans will be imminent.”
Alistair sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “But why do I have to be here?” They continued forward, following a few steps behind Cailan as he began rapidly pointing to a particularly sparse area of stalks. “None of this is useful to me. All I’m doing is floating here and listening to him drone on about something that isn’t even an issue yet!”
Cullen chuckled. “You are the Prince and Cailan’s current heir to the throne. Until such a time as he produces a child with Queen Anora , it is your responsibility to understand the fine tunings of running this kingdom should anything – Triton forbid – happen to your brother.”
“You sound just like my father. You’re not even four years older than me, that’s just wrong.” Alistair scoffed, turning his attention away from him and moving to catch up with Cailan. Cullen suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Many a time he had been compared to Cailan and Alistair’s late father, if only for the reason that he was the only one willing to talk some sense into the Prince. Being Cailan’s heir afforded Alistair the luxury of complacency, while being Captain of the Prince’s Guard afforded Cullen none.
Suddenly a shadow far to his right caught his eye. It was moving slowly across the sea floor, although that might have been the distance distorting its speed, and the shape was unlike any creature he had encountered in this area. Perhaps a whale? Brow furrowing, Cullen paused, allowing the rest of the procession to pass him as he studied the unfamiliar shape. Whales were not common in this area, the kelp forest made it difficult for them to navigate the terrain. What was that?
“Carrol, Rylen, cover the Prince for me. Lillian, you’re with me. I’m going to go check out what that is.” Immediately his men moved to carry out his orders and the serpent shifted from her place at Cailan’s side to Cullen’s. Lillian was a new recruit, one of the first non-merfolk species allowed in the Palace Guard. It made her a hard worker and very, very terrified of breaking the rules, something that Meredith, his Commander, had appreciated. She had left Lillian’s training up to Cullen’s discretion.
As soon as his commands had been carried out Cullen turned back towards the shadow and began swimming towards it, Lillian at his side, intent on discovering exactly what it was that had ventured so close to their Kingdom.
“This is positively amazing!” Adria gasped as the sea spray hit her face. “Why didn’t mum and dad decide to build a boat sooner?”
From his place at the stern of the boat, Ethan laughed heartily, wrapping an arm around Dorian’s waist. “Well, they didn’t build her you know. They had to commission her from a shipbuilder and their prices aren’t cheap.” Adria sighed at her brother's inability to sense her rhetorical question. She knew why they hadn't had a boat made until now, after all it was a present for Dorian and Ethan's upcoming engagement and eventual marriage, but that didn't mean she couldn't wish they had had it sooner .
With a roll of her eyes Adria shifted down the steps, away from the steering wheel and towards the deck. “Regardless, you know Dad has always wanted a boat. And you knew he would get you two one as a present. You should have just gotten engaged earlier!” She leaned out over the sturdy railing, breathing in the fresh scent of salt and clear water as her simple skirts whipped about her ankles. This was the second day of their week long voyage to Alamar , supposedly to survey land for an estate their father wished to build, but Adria saw right through that: while the pretense of business was obvious, their family wanted to get out of Ostwick for a few days to relax on the open sea. To that she had no complaint.
"Well, I couldn't very well propose without all the proper niceties, now could I? What sort of gentleman would that make me?" Dorian feigned offense, complete with a hand across his brow, and Adria gave a snort of a laugh. She and Dorian had been fast friends even before she had introduced him to her brother, having met at a ball thrown by a mutual friend. He was one of the only male nobles she could actually stand , and while she had been only slightly disappointed to find he didn’t play for her team, she was more than ecstatic that she would soon be able to call him her brother.
"It would make you a very economizing man." She responded easily, giving him a wink even as she turned to look out over the Amaranthine. After a moment, she called out, “So, can either of you swim?”
That got a laugh from both of them, but it was Ethan that responded. “My dear sister, you know that I don’t. As far as I know, Dorian can’t either. And I know that you can’t. ” Dorian nodded his assent, passing the wheel off to one of the deck hands so that he could join Adria at the railing.
“So if the ship were to go down, what, we would all drown?” Adria laughed nervous ly as she watched the aquamarine waves crashing against an outcropping of rock a few hundred yards away . She had spent time on the shore before they left, allowing the gentle waves to lap against her ankles before they boarded, and while it had been soft she had felt the power beneath the water. It looked beautiful and peaceful now, almost serene, but she wasn’t fooled. She had heard stories of ships crashing into reefs during tempests. The thought made her shiver.
“Oh, don’t be so fatalistic, my dear! You’ll jinx us!” Dorian laughed beside her.
Adria exhaled shakily, nodding as she released a nervous chortle. I guess Dorian is right, there’s nothing to worry about… She considered for a moment, glancing back to the water below before her eyes widened.
“ Man overboard! ” She screeched, pointing to a face she could just barely make out below the surface of the gleaming water. Dorian shoved her away from the railing immediately, attempting to make room for the deck hands who were preparing to jump into the water to rescue whoever it was that she had seen, and Ethan shifted her to the center of the boat even as she swatted his hands away. Running back towards the railing, Adria doubled over when her stomach hit it, leaning out as far as she could to get a glimpse of that face one more. But there was nothing there to be seen.
Her brow furrowed even as Dorian arched a brow at her, the deck hands half over the railing before they realized there was no one in the water at all. But I had just seen –
“Quite a fright you gave us there, sister. Good joke, but next time let’s not give the deck hands a heart attack, shall we?” Ethan gave an exasperated sigh, moving to stand on the other side of her.
Adria shot him a glare before scanning the water once more. “It wasn’t a joke, Ethan. I saw a man in the water.” She ground her words as she fought back her annoyance and fear. Had she seen someone? No, there was no doubt in her mind that she had. But then where had he gone? Had he really drowned in the seconds it took for the deck hands to prepare to jump over?
“Pray tell, then, Adria, what did this man look like? None of us saw him!” Dorian laughed, leaning back against the railing so that he could get a better look at her face. She shot him a look that could kill.
“Blonde hair, brown eyes, I think.” She murmured, trying to recall more but those were the only features that stood out to her in the split-second moment that she had seen him.
Dorian and Ethan shared a confused glance for a moment behind Adria’s head before Ethan responded.
“Adria… I don’t believe anyone on our ship matches that description.”
It took a moment for her to register what her brother was implying, but once it did her brow furrowed and she turned slowly to glare at him, annoyed. “So, what, you’re implying that made it all up? That I’m seeing things?” That made her angry. While she did sometimes enjoy playing jokes on her sibling she would never purposely fabricate a man drowning in the water for her own amusement. Ethan raised his hands in his defense, about to launch into a multitude of circular arguments to avoid incurring his sister’s wrath when Dorian cut in.
“Or, maybe you saw a mermaid!” Dorian waggled his eyebrows at her, leaning close to elbow her lightly in the forearm before quickly dancing away from the attempted jab that inevitably followed.
She whirled on him, anger well and truly flaring now. “Stop patronizing me! You know mermaids don’t exist.” The glare she directed towards him could have turned sand to glass. “Besides, it was a man , not a woman.”
Ethan knew better than to chuckle but still the sound rose in his chest, unbidden. “A merman, then, dear sister.” He shifted very quickly away as Adria turned her fiery glare to him.
“Just because no one has never seen a mermaid – excuse me, merman – doesn’t mean that they aren’t out there. After all, dragons are alive and well, whereas before half an age ago we believed them extinct.” Dorian pointed out from his position at the helm of the boat. He had taken over the steering wheel from the deckhand he had relieved it to earlier and was now steering them more north east than before, supposedly towards the direction of Alamar.
Looking back and forth between the amused expressions on her brother’s and his lover’s faces, Adria gave them one final glare before throwing her hands up, scoffing. “You both are utterly insufferable!”
“Captain Cullen?” Lilian’s voice came hesitantly from his side as they swam towards the massive object floating on the surface of the water. As they had neared closer to it Cullen had had to fight back his growing suspicions that this was not in fact a sea creature, and was in fact a human vessel. He tried his hardest to remain optimistic as they slowly ascended.
“Yes, recruit?” He addressed her formally. She was a sweet girl, if a little meek when it came to thinking for herself, but Cullen hoped she would grow out of it as she progressed through the Guard ranks. For now he avoided coddling her, treating her just as he did any of the other soldiers under his command.
“I just…” She paused, clearly nervous, but with only slight hesitation plowed ahead. “I believe that that is a human ship, Ser , and if so, is it truly wise that we approach it?” For her admission she received only a sidelong glance from her superior, which he sent her into a nervous tizzy. “I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have – I mean I didn’t mean to – ”
“Your question is not without merit, recruit.” He acknowledged as he examined the underside of the vessel they now approached. It was extremely clear now that they were closer that this was a human ship, and while he had had felt the same uneasiness as she about approaching it, he knew that the wiser course of action would be to discover what exactly this vessel was doing so far from standard trading routes rather than letting pass unsupervised. He communicated as much to her.
Cullen could practically hear her swallow hard at the prospect of eavesdropping on the humans, the very beings that every merfolk is taught to fear and avoid from the moment of their birth. Other species probably fear humans even more, Cullen realized. While merfolk had a plethora of means to defend themselves, most other species relied on the merfolk to protect them, so the prospect of encountering humans probably terrified Lillian, he reasoned.
"Stay at this distance." He ordered once they were a mere 10 yards from the ship. "I'll surface and assess the situation, at which time we'll return to the Capital and decide on a course of action." The serpent looked visibly relieved as she nodded her assent, and Cullen quickly rose to come up on the starboard side of the boat.
He hadn't even surfaced for more than a few seconds before realizing the idle chatter he heard was coming from directly above him, and he wasn't close enough to the side of the ship to conceal himself. Immediately he submerged himself again, but not before he heard a frantic scream of "Man overboard!" from the ship.
"Retreat! Now!" He shouted to Lillian as he bolted towards an outcropping of rock far below them, attempting to put as much distance between himself and the ship as possible. Lillian followed behind him frantically. It was not until they were safely concealed behind the rocky formation that Cullen checked to make sure they hadn't been followed. Indeed, it appeared that no humans had even broke the surface of the water.
"Captain... what exactly happen? Did the humans spot you?" Lillian questioned nervously as she looked over his shoulder.
Cullen made a split second decision. "No, they didn't, but they very easily could have." Was the only response he gave, although it was a blatant lie. He had been spotted, but it would do no good to acknowledge it to his recruit who was already terrified. At least, that's what he told himself, pointedly ignoring the way the image of jet black hair and blue eyes lingered hazily at the back of his mind.
After a moment he brought himself back to the present. "Return to the King's side and alert the others that we will be returning to the palace immediately. No royal is to leave that vicinity until we are sure of the motives of those humans. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Ser!" Lillian responded before quickly swimming back towards the Kelp F orest. Cullen watched the ship continue on its path for a moment longer before following after her, attempting to rid himself of the glimpse of a face that faintly lingered on the edge of his vision.